PR Trends You Can’t Afford to Miss: Toward a Customer Freedom Agenda
By Bill Lee, President, Lee Consulting Group, Author, The Hidden Wealth of Customers
For most of recorded history, nations grew by installing rulers and elites who told people what to do. Then the United States came along and started attracting people by offering them freedom and autonomy.
Oddly, many businesses — even here in the States — take the former approach toward customers. They’re the experts, they decide what customers need, they even try to trap them with long term contracts (cell service providers, enterprise software firms), regulations that limit competition, or industry practices designed for the benefit of its corporations rather than their customers. Little surprise, then, that a recent survey found that only six percent of executives believe their companies practice stellar customer service or offer exemplary customer experiences.
But many companies today are pursuing major opportunities by moving toward a freedom agenda for customers—and this requires major changes in the way they grow their businesses. Instead of creating customer experiences, for example, they allow customers to create their own experiences. Instead of relying on internal R&D experts to come up with breakthrough innovations, they become expert at finding customers who can provide such breakthroughs (and almost every industry has such customers).
For PR and communications professionals, the customer freedom agenda means big changes as well. Instead of being expert at communicating your company’s value, you’ll become expert at getting customers to communicate that value for you.
Your Primary Tool: Community Marketing
Some people are already declaring it a passing fad, but “community marketing” isn’t going anywhere. There’s a reason why, in the Facebook era, many of the richest, most compelling firms today are about connecting people and expanding their options to connect and learn more about and from each other.
In the business world, it’s a lot easier to attract a buyer to with a community of her peers (your customers) than it is to attract her using your traditional communication channels. PR and communications professionals who become expert at building and communicating with customer communities will be well set for a bright future of including great value for their firms—and their customers.
Here are three tips to keep in mind:
It’s not about connecting with your brand, but with their peers.
Companies who falter in building communities very often start by trying to form one around their brand. Big mistake, unless you’re an Apple of Harley Davidson.
You’ll have a much better chance of building community on the basis of helping customers connect with each other. More companies can do this than think they can. It requires giving some thought to what your product or service means to customers: that provides the “gravity” for attracting more people.
For example, Procter & Gamble has built one of the great retailing communities with teenage girls, called BeingGirl, around off all things, its feminine hygiene products. That would seem like the last thing you could form community around. But P&G asked what it’s products meant to teenage girls, and eventually realized that it symbolized their passage into womanhood—an exciting, scary, wonderful, upsetting time in their lives. The great attraction of BeingGirl is that member girls talk about these issues—not to P&G experts, as the site was originally set up to do–but to each other. A superb example of implementing a customer freedom agenda. And in the meantime, P&G marketers have developed growing expertise in how to market appropriately—and highly effectively—to this vibrant and growing community.
Get good with the data
PR people and communications today have a pretty good idea—or at least they should—of what a buyer is looking for when you encounter him—on your website, in ads, through the media and so forth. So provide it to him!
In many cases, what will be most useful to him is information from your existing customers. If he’s early in the buy cycle, he’ll likely want to know about options—what products or services are people like him using to solve his problem? What do they think about them? So provide customer reviews and ratings. If this information is still thin on your site, direct him to third party sites. Does this sound too radical? We know that buyers want this information and will seek it out. So what’s better? The buyer seeking out his own sources using Google, for example, or directing the buyer to third party information sources with whom it has a relationship that includes making sure it has an accurate and up to date understanding of the firm’s value?
If on the other hand, the buyer is close to deciding between your firm and a competitor, you might direct him to a community of enthusiastic customers to affirm his positive view of your firm and its products, closing the deal.
Create 5x the Value for Customers
You can only load so much value into a product and service until you overload—and annoy—customers with “feature creep.” But many companies are finding ways to create considerably more value to customers, by looking beyond the product to other intangible and emotional value.
Firms like Salesforce.com and Microsoft create “MVPs” (most valuable professionals) who become extremely powerful players in their branding and growth strategies. Microsoft’s MVPs provide it’s most valuable beta test feedback, contribute it’s most valuable marketing communications, move large audiences to try its products, and even provide support services saving the firm hundreds of millions of dollars—all for free.
That’s because Microsoft and SFDC provide things the MVPs value much more: status and respect, access to their executives, front row seats at their customer conferences, affiliation with interesting peers, important knowledge, and more.
In today’s world, PR and communications professionals no longer have to be expert at getting buyers to purchase products and services. Their new expertise, far more powerful, is in engaging customers to do it for them.
Bill Lee is the author of the new book The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) and the President of Lee Consulting Group. He is also Executive Director of the industry-leading event on customer engagement and advocacy, the Summit on Customer Engagement. For eight years he has provided educational, research, and consulting services to many of the world’s top firms, such as IBM, AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, CA Technologies, Dell, Salesforce.com, and others.